James Gray's latest crime drama provides more of the same brooding family feuds
Filmmaker James Gray has made a name for himself crafting rich, gritty crime dramas almost universally focussing on families torn apart by members who undertake a life of crime.Indeed it seems like quite a natural choice for him to opt to adapt the 2008 French film, Les liens du sang – which basically translates to Blood Ties – as it is, essentially, right up his street. The story focuses on a veteran criminal released from prison after serving 9 years for murder, who finds it impossible to go straight and soon slips back into his criminal ways, much to the chagrin of his New York cop brother.
Fans of Gray’s work – most notably The Yards and We Own the Night – will immediately wonder whether they’ve heard all this before, particularly in the latter, an 80s-set piece which sees Joaquim Phoenix’s nightclub owner butting heads with his NYC cop brother, played by Mark Wahlberg, who doesn’t like the circles he’s running in.So, despite the best efforts by Director Guillaume Canet – who made the taut 2006 thriller Tell No One (a rare popular foreign masterpiece which has yet to be sacked by the Hollywood remake steamroller) – the end result is somewhat cursed by Gray’s influence, and left feeling little more than a retread of an overly familiar story, done numerous times before, even by Gray himself.
The 70s setting feels surprisingly authentic, and the ensemble cast that include Billy Crudup (Watchmen), an out-of-place Mila Kunis (Black Swan) and the director’s wife, Academy Award-winner Marion Cotillard (Inception), as well as Zoe Saldana (Out of the Furnace), Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone), and James Caan (The Yards) all commit to their respective roles wholeheartedly, but it’s perhaps only Clive Owen’s tough-as-nails recidivist who stands out, delivering some of his most distinctive work in years, and reminding us of everything he’s capable of.
Characters are painted in broad strokes, intersecting on the collision course of the two brothers on opposite sides of the law central thread, with both characters struggling with the reappearance of their ex-partners – a drug addict ex-wife whorehouse madam for Owen’s con, and an ex-girlfriend who has hooked up with the abusive partner that Crudup’s cop happens to get banged up – and struggling to keep their animosity in check in front of their one-lung ailing father, but none of it feels particularly original, nor all that compelling. Indeed, it would have been nice to see a con who didn’t get tragically pulled back into their criminal life; a husband who didn’t feel the need to fall for the allures of an ex-partner, and an ex-hooker who genuinely did get out of the business. Alas, Blood Ties trades in archetypes not against-types, and appears to revel in it.
At least we should be grateful that Mark Wahlberg, who was originally cast in one of the two lead roles, had to drop out – his presence would have only further hammered home the We Own the Night comparisons, and made this feel even more like just another Gray regurgitation.
Touted as Heat meets Mesrine, that may well have been what they were aiming for, but they landed pretty far from the mark.
Although screened back in Cannes last year, Blood Ties has taken a long time to filter to the States, and even longer to make it to the UK, reaching global non-Cannes audiences in a significantly truncated form that runs almost 20 minutes shorter than the original cut. There is a chance that the longer cut helps distinguish the substance of the film from its fairly generic dime-a-dozen familiarity, but, considering that the feature feels overlong at 2 hours already, it’s difficult to see how a longer cut would make the ride any more enjoyable. Boasting a couple of mildly engaging action setpieces, this is just a diluted, 70s-set derivation of Gray’s earlier We Own the Night, only with none of the moody style and oppressive atmosphere, and only one of the standout performances.
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